Voting Rights Act in the United States and California
The right to vote is a fundamental constitutional right and the most basic form of political expression.
Although guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, the right to vote has not always been fairly administeredthroughout the United States – with racial minority groups denied equal protection under the law.
In 1965, over the strong objections of Southern Democrats, Congress passed the federal Voting Rights Act to outlaw discriminatory voting practices. The landmark legislation prohibited states from engaging in literacy tests and provided for a system of federal oversight to ensure that jurisdictions did not violate the constitutional rights of its citizens.
“The Voting Rights Act,” notes a former Senior Trial Attorneywith the United States Department of Justice and Adjunct Professor at Arizona State University, “is one of the most successful civil rights laws ever enacted. It has made the dream of political participation a reality for millions of minorities in the United States.”
The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, received strong bipartisan support in Congress. Republican lawmakers supported the measure in greater numbers than Democrats. As PolitiFact confirms, 82 percent of Republicans in the House of Representatives supported the measure, compared to just 78 percent of Democrats. In the United States Senate, the vote was decided with “73 percent of Democrats and 94 percent of Republicans supporting the bill.”
In addition to securing the franchise for millions of Americans, the Voting Rights Act opened the door to minority candidates for public office.
“Once the Voting Rights Act became the law, it changed the political demographics all across the South,” Rev. Wyatt T. Walker, a former pastor told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. ”You had black people running for office; it was the freshest breath of air in the struggle.”
In California, the federal Voting Rights Act has been further secured with the passage of the California Voting Rights Act. Enacted in 2002, the law recognizes that discriminatory voting systems can be used to dilute the political representation of minority groups in California.
The California Voting Rights Act focuses on the use of at-large elections, in which members of a governing board are decided from all voters within the jurisdiction’s area.
Section 14027 of the California Voting Rights Act states: “An at-large method of election may not be imposed or applied in a manner that impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election, as a result of the dilution or the abridgment of the rights of voters who are members of a protected class, as defined pursuant to Section 14026.”
The California Voting Rights Act establishes a stronger requirement and greater level of protection than federal law. “The CVRA invalidates not only at-large elections that prevent minority voters from electing their chosen candidates, but also those that impair the ability of minority voters to influence elections,” contend voting rights experts.
The California Voting Rights Act establishes a preference for by-district elections, in which candidates for the elected office reside within an electoral district or sub-division of the government entity. By-district elections are decided by only the voters residing within that specific electoral district or political sub-division